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Toshi Reagon: Soul Mechanism

When Toshi Reagon was invited to perform as part of A Time Like This: Music for Change in March 2018, she thought she would simply walk out on stage and sing a few songs. But this final event of the Weill Music Institute’s (WMI) season-long creative learning project for songwriters of all ages and abilities—part of Carnegie Hall’s festival The ’60s: The Years that Changed America—left her speechless. Accompanied by a choir, full orchestra, and dynamic video projections, Reagon “walked in as a solo artist and left being a part of something epic.”

Soon after, the celebrated performer was invited to lead the next project, this time in tandem with the Hall’s citywide festival Migrations: The Making of America, tracing how large-scale movements of people—both to and within our country—have helped shape American arts, culture, and society. She recently discussed her own perceptions about migrations with Aaron Siegel, WMI’s assistant director of learning and engagement programs, in anticipation of her culminating event, Soul Mechanism—a concert that will feature her longtime band, special guest artists, and new songs by New Yorkers of all ages that explore the migration experience from generation to generation.

The concept of migration is obviously a timely one.

One thing my mom has always said, “I don’t know why they have these dumb laws. Everybody’s supposed to come here.” Everybody. But in an effort to better understand each other, we have to be able to talk about what each of us brings to the table when we walk through that door. If you were born here and you feel a certain way, do you know where that feeling came from? And if you do, what do you want to say about it? For me, it can start with something as specific as a particular recipe. It can be about a food. It can also be a musical thing: “This kind of music was sung in my family,” or “this is the instrument that we brought from this certain place and somebody still plays it.”

But you go further, talking not just about the migration of people, but also about the migration of ideas.

[Singing] “Lord, I got a right … to the tree of life.” That’s an idea I have about myself that has been passed on in my family for hundreds of years. When I was born, that is what I was told. That idea has always stayed with me—that I have the right to exist and to be who I am. That’s the migration of ideas. When I hear the songs of my people, they validate that message. The songs of my people that were passed up through time validate that I belong where I am. If you think about spirituals and their importance during slavery, these songs are actually making you stay alive in the face of such severe hatred and violence. They are absolutely medicinal. They are songs that are literally guiding you in a direction in which you should go.

Would you agree that ideas alone drive so many of our perceptions?

Look at things like institutionalized racism, institutionalized violence, institutionalized exploitation. Are we just doing these things because we don’t think the idea of change is manageable? Two men want to be together. What is the problem? This group of people comes from this land over here and you don’t want to let them onto this land over there. What’s the issue? That man stole something out of the store and you want to put him in jail for 15 years. Really? Where did all of that come from? Where did this unbelievable amount of violence and hatred in humans come from? It’s a migration of ideas around how to be with each other that’s literally tearing the world apart. Just because you have a certain system does not mean you shouldn’t destroy it and start over. All of us have the potential to be courageous and all of a sudden do something we never did before—the way we can imagine something and activate it.

In other words, being able to imagine something helps to perpetuate a new reality.

Imagination to me is really, really important and a really valuable tool for success. I think one of the reasons Americans get stuck is that we have an aversion to imagination. Sometimes we make terrible institutionalized decisions because we can’t imagine that something else could happen. Imagining what you could see based on what you know and can pass on to the future is, to me, part of the migration of ideas.

Explain the idea of the “soul mechanism.”

The soul mechanism is our one contribution to the planet, other than our tangible existence. The one thing I think that’s beautiful about humans is our potential to actually be these mystical beings that can carry so much history and knowledge and pass it on from generation to generation. And because we’re not trees and blades of grass and bugs, we actually can speak about it. We can actually leave the data in certain kinds of ways for the future. I really do think that is such a powerful part of how we exist in the world. The soul is fluid and timeless, and the potential can be anything you want it to be and anything you want to share. I call upon my ancestors all the time and ask them what I should do about something. I find the answer thinking about their spirits and who they were in the world. That is really, to me, our human legacy on this planet and what this show is all about.

You sang “I’ve got a right …,” but a lot of our young people don’t believe they have a right to certain things. And this affects the migration of that idea. How can we change that?

One thing I do with young people all the time is I ask them what they want to do. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And if I get to stay in their lives, I ask them every year. It’s always a different answer. I also ask what they want to do, where do they want to go. And I actually try to fulfill those answers. As a kid when I would come to visit my dad in New York, my stepmother, Merble Reagon, would take us everywhere—literally all over the city. And this idea impacted my body, that this all belonged to me. She proudly walked us through these places and didn’t treat us like kids. I felt like I was a person in New York— that the sidewalk on which I was walking belonged to me. And that’s how I want the young people to feel in this show—that they have equity in everything that’s happening on the stage.

What else can you say about the culminating performance this May?

We have selected nine new songs written by musicians from a variety of settings: classrooms, after-school programs, and the justice system. Each songwriter has a different voice and history with music. Together, their words and sounds will tell a powerful story about our collective experience with migration. I think this is the best time to be doing something really wonderful around this theme. Our country is in a really horrific place—it’s always been a little horrific because of the legacy of its origins. And you can’t get to the freedom land if you can’t face how you got the land that you’re on in the first place.